Self-Defense Forces Watching China Amid Multilateral Drills; Japan Seeks to Strengthen Ties with Democratic Nations

Courtesy of the Maritime Self-Defense Force
Comdr. Naoki Katagiri, left, commands the pursuit of a mock submarine target from a P-1 patrol plane over the sea near Guam during the Sea Dragon 2024 drill in January.

By participating in an increasing number of multilateral joint defense drills, the Self-Defense Forces are aiming to strengthen ties with countries that share and respect the values of freedom and democracy amid recent moves by China and North Korea.

Japan aims to deter those autocratic countries’ attempts to change the status quo by force, through demonstrations of that unity. The situation will likely remain confrontational as China heightens its aggressive maritime advancement.

High-level training

Crew members on a Maritime Self-Defense Force P-1 patrol aircraft paid close attention to the surface of the Pacific Ocean.

“Forward clear,” the pilot told the crew, and a tactical coordinator promptly responded and dropped sonobuoys.

A sonobuoy searches for submarines via sound waves after being dropped from a plane into the sea. Immediately after the sonobuoys hit the water’s surface, their microphones began transmitting data to the P-1 aircraft.

This was a part of Sea Dragon 2024, a joint drill held over the sea near Guam.

U.S. forces organized this drill for detecting submarines. Japan, the United States, Australia, India and other countries dispatched patrol aircraft to participate in the exercise from Jan. 8 to 24. The four countries competed over how quickly and accurately their patrol planes could find a submarine.

The sonobuoys dropped from the P-1 patrol plane detected sounds from a target about eight meters long, moving under the sea. The crew could not see the target from the air, but they analyzed the sound data, continued dropping more sonobuoys as if they had reached the target’s next position in advance, and accurately followed its course.

The MSDF team did the best among the four countries’ teams, winning the competition for the second consecutive year.

The drill also include training in which patrol planes from five countries — Japan, the United States, Australia, India and South Korea — took turns pursuing an underwater target in a sea area with a 100-kilometer radius.

The MSDF P-1 plane received fuel from the U.S. side.

“I felt firsthand that it is important to repeatedly hold drills with the United States and other friendly countries, and strengthen our capabilities,” said Comdr. Naoki Katagiri, 51, chief of an MSDF flight division.

With close nations

Since 2017, the MSDF has dispatched ships to many countries for several months to participate in drills in the Indo-Pacific region in a bid to deepen mutual understanding with those countries. Last year, MSDF ships visited about 15 nations.

The MSDF has also repeatedly conducted training related to humanitarian assistance in island nations in the Pacific Ocean, where China has been expanding its influence.

In contrast, drills supposing military contingencies are referred to as minilateral, involving a small number of close countries. For example, a group of countries mainly comprising Japan, the United States and Australia have conducted drills to detect submarines, which can pose a threat to private-sector vessels in the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

In October last year, Japan, the United States and South Korea conducted the first joint drill involving fighters and bombers in airspace northwest of Kyushu, to counter North Korea’s repeated launches of ballistic missiles.

“These nations have likely developed minilateral cooperation to complement the bilateral alliance with the United States, which can be seen the foundation” said Tomohiko Satake, an associate professor of security studies of Aoyama Gakuin University.

U.S. policy shift

Multilateral defense drills have increased mainly because they are conducted in response to China, which has significantly built up its military power.

China is believed to have increased its number of modernized warships and submarines by about 60%, and its fighters by about 120%, in the past decade.

Though the United States pursued a conciliatory policy toward China in the first half of the 2010s, it turned to a hardline stance from around 2015 as Beijing has continued its aggressive maritime advancement.

Hideki Yuasa served as the commander in chief of the Self-Defense Fleet — commanding all vessels and aircraft units of the MSDF — from 2020 to 2022. Yuasa expressed a sense of urgency, saying: “The Chinese Navy in the 2000s had such a low-profile existence that we wondered whether it could make extended voyages. But now, [the Chinese Navy] operates aircraft carriers, and it has exceeded the SDF in terms of the number of its warships and its capabilities.”

“I worry that China will actually do what it declared it would,” he said.

For example, in 2013 China unilaterally set up an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ), which includes airspace over the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, to enhance air surveillance. Yuasa said China at the time did not have enough aircraft and ships to monitor the ADIZ. But now, China is believed to dispatch warships along the ADIZ and to be building radar networks.

“While calmly observing China’s strength, Japan needs to fundamentally strengthen defense capabilities and deepen unity with Indo-Pacific nations through various drills,” Yuasa said.